Yada Yada Yada: 15 Greatest Moments in Jewish Comedy History
In celebration of our blockbuster exhibit, “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World”, honoring the contributions of Jews to the world of comedy, we at the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot unveiled a list of the 15 greatest moments in the history of Jewish comedy.
Headlining the list are “Seinfeld,” Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2,000-Year-Old Man” routine, the “Borscht Belt,” Joan Rivers’ 1965 debut on “The Tonight Show,” Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” and Henny Youngman’s signature “Take my wife, please.”
Since its opening, the “Let There Be Laughter” exhibit has drawn more than 110,000 visitors. Many of the moments highlighted in the above list can be found in original form through artifacts or reconstruction – including a replica of Jerry Seinfeld’s New York City apartment living room from “Seinfeld” – in the exhibition itself.
“Borscht Belt” (1920s – 1970s)
The region of the Catskills in upstate New York dubbed the “Borsch Belt,” the once-thriving resort destination for New York City Jews and the cradle of American Jewish comedy for launching the careers of many of the world’s greatest comics and a new brand of stand-up comedy.
The Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” (1933) mirror scene
In the iconic scene from the Marx Brothers’ zaniest comedy, Groucho and Harpo, both dressed as Groucho’s character, mimic each other in an opening between two rooms that looks like a mirror.
Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife, please” joke origin (1940)
Youngman’s trademark line, “Take my wife, please,” was born by accident when the comic legend and “King of the One-Liners” uttered it while trying to get an usher to escort his wife, Sadie, to her seat just minutes before he was set to do a radio show appearance.
“An Evening with Nichols and May: The Jewish Mother” (1960 – 1961)
In the humorous Broadway skit, which pokes fun at the stereotypical Jewish mother-son relationship, Elaine May plays an ultra-Jewish mother phoning her rocket scientist son, played by Mike Nichols, to ask why he never calls.
“The 2000-Year-Old Man” (1961)
Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner created the seminal comedy routine, which features Reiner playing an interviewer and straight man, asking Brooks a series of questions that he would answer as the world’s oldest man.
Sallah Shabati (1964)
The comedy film about the chaos of Israeli immigration and resettlement in the 1960s is the most popular Israeli movie of all time. Starring Chaim Topol, the movie tells the story of new immigrants Sallah and his family, who are left in a shack near their promised apartment and are abandoned for months.
Joan Rivers’ first “Tonight Show” appearance (1965)
Rivers’ “Tonight Show” debut featured host Johnny Carson famously telling her on-air: “God, you’re funny. “You’re going to be a star.” Her breakthrough helped paved the way for female comics.
“Saving Soviet Jewelry” (1976)
In this hilarious “Saturday Night Live” skit, Gilda Radner, playing wacky TV news editorial Emily Litella, mistakes “Soviet Jewry” for “Soviet jewelry.” She says: “What’s all this fuss I hear about Soviet jewelry…Where are we going to put it? I say keep it over there, with all their ballet dancers.”
“Annie Hall” (1977)
The hit romantic comedy, about the relationship of Jewish comic Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his non-Jew girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), features the famous scene where Alvy, while having holiday dinner with Annie’s family, views them seeing him as a Hasidic Jew. Moments later, a split-screen contrasts that dinner, where they’re talking swap meets and boat basins, with that of Alvy’s family’s holiday meal, where they’re shouting and discussing diabetes.
The spoof comedy film boasts the humorous scene where a controller says, “Air Israel, please clear the runway!” and a plane is shown wearing a beard, yarmulke, payot and a tallit. In another scene, an elderly woman asks a flight attendant for some light reading, to which the attendant hands her a leaflet of “famous Jewish sports legends”.
“Seinfeld” (1989 – 1998)
Jerry Seinfeld’s namesake sitcom, co-created with Larry David, changed how people viewed Jews and brought Judaism and Jewish culture to the masses like never before. Ranked the greatest TV show in history, its classic Jewish-themed storylines include “The Bris,” The Shower Head,” “The Yada, Yada,” “The Hamptons,” “The Rye” and the “Anti-Dentite,” among others.
“City Slickers” (1991)
In the smash comedy film, Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern play wise-cracking big-city Jewish businessman Mitch Robbins and Phil Berquist, who try their hand at herding cattle in the southwest.
Adam Sandler’s first “Hanukkah Song” (1994)
Debuting on “Saturday Night Live”, the song, which celebrates famous Jews, became an instant holiday favorite. Over the years, Sandler has written and performed several versions of the song.
Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down the Well” (2006)
In the film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh journalist character, Borat, performs his parody song, “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” in an Arizona cowboy bar. While critics slammed it as anti-Semitic, Baron Cohen said he created Borat as “a tool” to expose people’s prejudices.”
John Stewart’s “A Look Back: Let His People Laugh” (2015)
Prior to ending his 16-year run as host of “The Daily Show,” Stewart aired a special montage of his favorite Jewish moments. The funny segment, “A Look Back: Let His People Laugh,” was introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer.